Art of Darknessby Rosa Sparks / 28.06.2011
Welcome to Zimbabwe, the only place in the world where a mint 20 trillion dollar note sells for US$50 on eBay and where blackouts are not only anticipated but expected with your dinner. But let me get to the point, Zimbabwe might seem like a shit-hole, but far from the terrifying archival footage you see on CNN and horror stories you watch on Carte Blanche, it’s worth a visit purely because it’s so full of surprises. It seems a pity that for the last 14 years the cultural aspects of Zimbabwean life have by and large been ignored and sacrificed at the expense of the constant barrage of dramatic political tales of discontent, doom and disorder. The world gobbled it up and swallowed it whole in huge satiating portions of schadenfreude.
The truth is that the ordinary Zimbabwean stopped paying attention when they realized that giving a political shit wasn’t going to put food on the table. This in no means infers that they were suddenly apolitical, but rather that the Darwinian maxim of survival of the fittest took over instead. Even though we know Big Brother is everywhere, watching everything with a sharp hawk eye, finely tuned ear-pieces and the ever de rigeur dark sunglasses, life continues as best it can. Or rather, as best as we can pretend. For under most of the indifference is a fear of expression every Zimbabwean knows only too well.
The truth is told in the silence and in the subdued whispers of rage, anger and disbelief in homes and in private spaces, and if those walls could talk, they would scream “murder, bloody murder” like a crazed Banshee. So everyone pretends everything is as normal as it can be, tries to stay out of trouble and goes about life in survival mode at the determining speed of money made/hr. After all there’s no time to worry about politics when there’s US dollars to be made, and there is certainly no time for “that talk” lest the wanton winds of violence drift your way. Oh-blah-dee, oh-blah-dah, welcome to our way of life!
But I digress, if only to highlight the contextual background in which art functions in Zimbabwe. The state of affairs gets quite messy indeed, particularly if one considers how artists need to critique and comment on the extraordinary within the ordinary as well as what’s à la mode to remain relevant, whilst making a living. A conundrum is faced by most artists in Zimbabwe; make bold socio-political statements and live the unfettered life of a “true” artist, earning a decent living in exile, like Kudzanai Chiurai. Or live on the fringe of relevance (and poverty) at home, as an artist that’s afraid of having an opinion. Fortune favours the brave, it would seem.
So within this mêlée of complicated paradoxes enters HIFA ̶ the Harare International Festival of the Arts ̶ the annual international platform where Zimbabwean culture is disseminated and shared with the finest international and regional artists like José González, Nigerian-German warrior princess Nneka and South Africa’s own dreadlocked gods of Afro-rock the BLK JKS. This festival has over the past twelve years, provided a platform for ordinary Zimbabweans to see performances from Oliver Mtukudzi to Bulawayo kwela musician Albert Nyathi, whilst introducing up and coming talent from groups like Sonic Slam Chorus and Comrade Fatso. In short HIFA offers Zimbabweans living in a usually homogenous monoculturistic society, with radio stations that play up to 70% local content, the chance to get their annual cultural fix in a weeklong celebration of music, dance and theatre. This festival is a heck of a lot more than a sub-standard backyard jamboree complete with hay stacks and candy-floss, nor is it a weeklong alcohol and drug-fuelled hedonistic binge. HIFA instigates initiatives like Creative Zimbabwe that fosters collaboration between international and local artists, providing a platform for artists to learn from each other and create professional networks. The HIFA City Project is another initiative focussing on public art with graffiti by the Netherlands duo Mooiemuur and installations by South African designer Heath Nash that sought to beautify the neglected streets of Harare.
As an NGO that makes no profit from the festival, HIFA fosters talent through opening communication channels for artists, which is a different and at times far more effective approach to the usual handouts that other organizations would prefer to give. An example of one of the more memorable collaborations facilitated by HIFA was a performance by Moke, one of the biggest bands in the Netherlands, who collaborated with Zimbabwe’s own internationally acclaimed Queen of Mbira Chiwoniso Maraire, covering classics like Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”. This band set the stage ablaze with big guitars, thudding bass lines and classic rock vocals, whilst Chiwoniso’s enthralling and powerful voice boomed across the Harare night sky, drowning the sound of a hundred fireworks above her. Big names attract attention, and in Zimbabwe, this attention is not always the kind you want.
The Opening show for this year’s HIFA entitled Trea$ure was not only an entertaining theatre and dance piece curated by the talented Brett Bailey ̶ the man who brought Infecting the City to Cape Town ̶ but also a no holds barred political satire. The problem with satire in a country like Zimbabwe is that not everyone laughs at the joke. Local theatre luminaries like Daves Guzha who have combined art, political satire and bold protest theatre in plays like Rituals know that controversial plot lines don’t always go unnoticed by the authorities. His play, about citizen power and communication with the government, resulted in the main actors being arrested for “criminal nuisance” in January this year. Bailey’s Trea$ure opened with a performance of the Shirley Bassey classic “Diamonds Are Forever”, and then told a tale of the political, social and economic factors that have shaped interactions in various Zimbabwean communities in the recent years. Using wit and humour to explore issues of greed and looting by respected public officials, as well as police brutality. Needless to say there were rumours of the “arrest and release” of the key HIFA organizing team.
Apart from the Men in Black, HIFA has other things to worry about. Under constant scrutiny from local newspapers, it has been cast as a predominantly “white” festival, criticised for not doing enough to support local artists and for being a money-making “franchise” that hides its profits away for its own enrichment. Most of the criticism is unwarranted. As far as I have seen, HIFA is a non-profit NGO made up of a multi-racial team of passionate people who work tirelessly to bring an amazing festival to Zimbabweans from all walks of life. HIFA even facilitates free performances on Harare’s First Street to cater for those that cannot afford the tickets, or for those that have no time to attend the festival. The crowd HIFA attracts ranges from dreadlocked Converse wearing teenagers to the corporates in their expensive tailored suits. And while HIFA isn’t the only organization that supports local artists, it is one of the only organizations that’s making a visible difference to the art community in Harare.
Art in Zimbabwe exists precariously between the desire for true self expression and pressure from government forces that only allows room for the sanctioned expression of the status quo. But voices from the Chimurenga-styled arts movement which refuses to be stifled no matter what, are already audible in the works of Tapfuma Gutsa (sculptor) and Misheck Masamvu (painter), prominent artists whose highly politically charged works formed part of the Seeing Ourselves Zimbabwe pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Living as an artist in Zimbabwe is a struggle for both existence and relevance that’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, but then nothing worth achieving is ever easy to attain. A luta continua.
Misheck Masamvu, Dirty Nest.